Friday, September 23, 2011

Grapes and Olives in Provence: Cultivation From Year Zero to the 21st Century

In 2010, there was an exhibition in Arles which displayed 700 wonderful objects found on the Rhone riverbed during a long archaeological excavation underwater.

Cesar: le Rhone Pour Mémoire had as its centrepiece a stunningly lifelike marble bust of Caesar, cut from Italian marble during the emperor's lifetime. The austere and impressive expression of the great Roman emperor had endured centuries on the riverbed. Quite a find for any archaeologist.

In another part of the exhibition there was a map of France and French trade and agriculture during Roman times. Right by the village of Velleron, near home for me, I saw painted symbols marking the ancient cultivation of two fruits: grapes and olives.

Vines and olive trees have been planted and tended, right here, outside my door, for over two thousand years. Which is a lovely thought. All that natural continuity...

On my kitchen work surface right now is a very large bowl of muscat grapes, presented to me yesterday by a neighbour who has more grapes than he knows what to do with. He has vines on his terrace, providing fruit and shade. And he has recently planted 20 new vines not far from his swimming pool, beside one of his olive groves. They'll provide even more grapes next year so he'll need to figure out how to use them...

Outside my back door are 2 vines which I planted in 2004. One is in good shape; the other struggles with the rocky limestone ground. Still, having that connection with people who lived and worked on this same ground 2000 years ago is somehow thrilling.

Also on the kitchen work surface is a litre bottle of olive oil which I fill and refill all year, from our collective olive oil production (with neighbours) and including oil from my own olives.

Outside, there are olive trees which I've tried painstakingly to rehabilitate since they were all but destroyed by the hard frost in 1956. After tending and pruning and feeding with manure-and-straw from a friend's horses, the oliviers are producing olives once again. Just as they did before 1956. And just as olive trees on the same spot produced olives 2000 years ago.

There's something magical about pruning and feeding olive trees during the year, then collecting the olives at Christmas and producing your own olive oil to use throughout the following year. Thanks to those trees, and those of my neighbours, I haven't bought olive oil for years now - they yield the oil we all use throughout the year - entirely natural, untreated, untainted.

Just taking a walk in this area is a bit like time travel. You see the countryside pretty much as the Romans would have seen it in this spot, with the same cultivation taking place. From one neighbour's vines to another's olive trees, and then to my own, I get a sense of historical continuity on this beautiful land which fills me with joy.

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